Bastet's Lair

News, book reviews, essays, interviews, fiction writing, politics, and my view of the world

July 11, 2011

Andre Agassi Hits a Grand Slam

Now that tennis is back in the news (with Wimbledon just ended), it's a perfect time to pick up a book about tennis, preferably one that gets you inside the sport in ways you never would in other ways. Open by Andre Agassi is that book. Part auto-biography, part memoir (and who can really tell the difference), this is remembrance of a life in tennis that will grab you from the opening pages and not let you go until Agassi is finished 386 pages later. It tells the personal story of the man who won eight grand slams (those are the biggest tennis tournaments in the world), became a multimillionaire in prize money and product endorsement, was an international celebrity, and set up a charity in Las Vegas to fund underprivileged kids who had no education, decent living conditions, or prospects for the future.

But the book doesn't just discuss Agassi's achievements and personal life. It also takes a look down the dark corridors of the tennis academies and clubs where tennis is taught and sheds a not-so-glamorous light on the sport. For Agassi, who claims right from the beginning that he hates the sport, says tennis is battering whole generations of unwilling boys and girls by adults who crave the prize money, fame, and the ego-showcase of being the parent of a world-class tennis player.

From the beginning of the book, Agassi regales readers with the torment he was subjected to by his father, an Iranian immigrant named Mike (name Anglicized) Agassi. He married an American woman in Chicago and moved to Las Vegas. Finding a job at the casinos, he looked for a home in the nearby desert. It had to be a home that had a backyard that fit certain required dimensions—those of a tennis court. It turns out that the elder Agassi was determined that one (if not all) of his children was going to be a tennis champion. As the girls broke down one by one, and brother Philly couldn't make the grade, it was up to Andre, the youngest, to become the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

When his father couldn't torture him any longer—tennis before school and after—he was sent off to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida. Bollettieri's school, which is legendary now for the number of champions it has fostered, was new then not the dream school people imagine. Crummy food, drill-sergeant tactics, no sleep, no bonding with other students; it sounded like a hellhole. And Agassi was horrified when Bollettieri picked him out as a favored student who could stay for free. Essentially with no schooling past the 9th grade, Agassi was Nick's ward and shepherded across the U.S. winning junior championships and becoming more lonely as time went on.

The story eventually cheers as Agassi becomes an adult and plays as a professional. He finds his self worth and begins to gather an entourage who help him with training, finances, public relations, and just dealing with his emotions. He was still a wild child and shows up at tournaments in denim shorts and mohawk haircuts. News reporters jeer him for a advertising slogan ("Image is Everything") that follows him even though it was none of his doing.
The young years are rough, and a nasty rivalry develops between Agassi and Bernard Becker (this becomes almost humorous as the book continues), but there's a turning point that happens when Agassi faces down his public self and turns inward. There are things that go horribly wrong, such as his marriage to Brooke Shields, and things that are quite brilliant, such as his re-dedication to training with his no-nonsense trainer. The book never makes clear why Agassi could have played it so wrong by falling for Shields, who had no interest in his life as a tennis player at all. He even writes that she liked it when he lost a tournament because then he was around the house, paying attention to her!
But in the areas where he digs in and grows up, he sheds the need to please people like his father and the long-disappeared Bollettieri. He begins to work hard on his charity for underprivileged children, because in a way he's working on the child he was, underprivileged and unschooled in Las Vegas: a child who needed love and received very little. Because he worked so hard on the inner Andre, his tennis improved, and he attracted fans like never before.
Then he chased after and won the heart of Steffi (properly called Stefanie) Graf, former tennis pro and all-time Grand Slam record winner. With Graf, Agassi finds love, peace, and the joy of fatherhood with young Jaden and Jaz.
This writer was at the U.S. Open when Andre ended his career. I watched as he played the biggest match of his career (which he describes in detail in the first chapter of Open) against Marcos Baghdatis. The next match he lost and then announced the end of his long and historic career. It was one of those most moving and heart-rending moments in tennis. This book captures all of it.
Article first published as Book Review: Open By Andre Agassi on Blogcritics.